When you have a hammer, everything looks like nails

Netopia contributor Paul Frigyes reviews an influential book today: “Big Data“, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. Read it, because big data is a huge topic in tech, business and policy. I had the opportunity to listen to a speech by Mayer-Schönberger a few years ago, not on big data, but on his previous topic on the importance of teaching machines to forget. He wrote the book “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” where he argues that the ability to forget is key to society and human nature – as we change over time as persons, we move on from previous views and opinions. However, if machines forget everything, this development is much harder. Think of when you Google someone’s name and the auto-complete function brings up previous searches. Sometimes they contain bad things these people did many years ago (maybe even served time in prison over) – they may have paid their debt to society but their wrongdoings are brought back in every search. Plus you may learn something you had rather not known about. If I interpret Mayer-Schönberger’s previous work correctly, such auto-complete algorithms should not be based on popularity of search terms, but rather be based on time, older information should be considered of lesser importance. By the way, I recall Mayer-Schönberger as an excellent speaker, he did this trick where he pretended to be really shy and then jumped into one of the most energetic speeches I’ve ever seen. Cool.

In a way, Big Data is the opposite of Delete. The message is that collecting all information (“n=all”) allows a paradigm shift in how we understand the world. Not having to rely on guesses anymore, because now we can crunch all the actual data. Just to add to Frigyes’s discussion, I too fond the book thought-provoking, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that a lot of these issues could be understood in different terms. When you have a hammer, everything looks like nails – and big data is a really good hammer. A recurring phenomenon in digitalization is democratization, enabling the user: anyone with a videocamera can make a movie that potentially can reach a global audience (or so they say). Big data looks like the opposite of this, a tool for the already dominant online giants. Having finished the book, I have an unanswered question: US-centric big market logic aside, what would a European take on Big data look like?